Once, many thousands of years ago, there lived a woman who seemed happy and wise.
Other people took notice of this. And as they themselves did not feel happy, they came to her and said “Teacher, give us your wisdom.”
“I have no wisdom,” she said.
The people left, discouraged, and went about their lives.
But still, as the woman went about hers, everyone noticed that she continued to seem quite happy and truly quite wise.
So they returned to her and said “Teacher, your wisdom is palpable. Tell us what you want in exchange for your wisdom, and we will give it to you.”
“I want nothing,” she said. “Except for you to be kind.”
Everyone went away, more discouraged. For they had to attend to many matters out of the teacher’s view; and if she could not see them acting kind, how would she know to whom to impart her happiness?
Finally they returned to the woman. This time they selected from among themselves the kindest-seeming fellow, in the hopes that he might extract from her the secret to her happiness.
So the man went forward to her, and said “Teacher, oh wise and kind teacher. We have labored hard amongst ourselves to be kind. Though many have failed, I truly have never been seen acting harshly towards any soul. Will you impart to me now the wisdom you possess?”
The woman paused, and thought for a long time.
Then she spoke.
There is a very old and beautiful con that I admire more than almost any other.
It was first created because someone seemed happier than the rest of us.
This con lasts for only one generation within a single school— but if a student cleanly splits from the school, it can propagate indefinitely.
The con is based on an experiential realization that some people have which is very difficult to talk about.
Here are three ways people talk about it, all of which are misleading:
All that is is doing, and there is nothing to do
The thing being sought is the seeking
You are God.
With this kind of realization often comes a deep trust in oneself— specifically in the “enoughness” of oneself.
When someone has a realization like this, others can often sense something special about her. A certain twinkle in the eye.
And so either they begin to bother her and ask her to share the twinkle, or for some reason she decides to go try to enlighten all beings.
In either case, she is confronted with the apparently impossible task of transmitting a non-verbal experiential realization of the fact that no teaching is needed, through the medium of teaching.
You’d think she could simply say “you are enough, and you don’t need me.”
But not only is this not a very effective transmission of the experience— it’s also not true. Because if they think that they need her, they have not realized their nature— and so, in a way, they do need her.
In other words: if a student believes he needs a teacher, it’s true.
So since the transmission can’t be given directly or explicitly, the teacher does something much more beautiful. She performs a con.
This con is perhaps the closest thing to a direct expression of the realization that there can be. It is certainly much closer than “You are God.”
It goes something like this.
“The kindness you are practicing is not at all true kindness. In order to attain the wisdom I possess, you must devote yourself tirelessly to the same practices I do. Only then will you have what I have.”
When the man returned to the others, they all rushed around him and asked what she had said.
When he told them, those without zeal gave up their quest to steal her wisdom, and began looking for another teacher.
And those who were sufficiently zealous all went together to the woman, and began to follow her instructions. She did indeed make them act more kindly towards others, and do a great many other things besides.
And whenever one of the students seemed to excel in the practices she prescribed, she would say “No, my child. You are still very far from the truth.”
And so they would try still harder, and listen still more attentively.
One day a student of hers was meditating with his fists tightly closed, as she had taught them all to do, when a child ran by. The child stopped when he saw the man’s strange posture and closed fists, and said to him “what are you holding in your hands?”
The man opened his eyes, and smiled when he saw the child. “Nothing,” he said.
The child’s eyes widened. “Tell me!” he said.
“It is true— I am holding nothing at all,” said the man.
The child became quite frustrated, and began to pry at one of the man’s hands trying to open it.
The man couldn’t help but keep it closed, lest the child be disappointed upon finding it truly empty.
And then the man began to laugh.
“My child, if you keep prying at my hand I will never open it. But if you run home, and help your mother and father with their work tonight, and do as you are told— then tomorrow when you return, perhaps I will let you see inside.”
The child ran home, quite excited and obedient.
When the man returned to the teacher, he extended his closed fist to her, and said “teacher— guess what is in my hand.”
The teacher shook her head, as if in great disappointment. “My child— you are nowhere near the level required for posing such riddles.”
The man laughed, and embraced her, and left, with a twinkle in his eye.